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The Byrd Curse?



Funny thing about junior senators from Virginia. They never seem to get very senior.

The recently deposed George Allen is the third Virginian in a row who catapulted into the slot once held by the venerable Massive Resister Harry Byrd Sr., then limped out of Washington, D.C., one or two terms later. Two of the three were even considered presidential contenders before being brought low.

So what gives?

How come Republican Paul Trible, who begot Democrat Chuck Robb, who begot Republican Allen, who last Tuesday begot Democrat Jim Webb, couldn't hold on to the post commanded by Byrd and son Harry Jr. for half a century?

Is there some mysterious curse of the Byrds that makes every successor wind up snake-bitten? And, if so, will the spell extend to the former Navy Secretary-turned-novelist-turned-politician who assumes the seat in January?

Maybe, maybe not.

Webb, a highly decorated Marine and student of world affairs, brings unusual intellect and force of character to the post. If all goes well, his legacy may eventually rival that of the former senator he most admires, the cerebral and original Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.

But Webb, who is starting at the top in public office, might also be tripped up by more mundane matters. Trible, Robb and Allen knew all about kissing babies, providing constituent service and navigating Virginia before they landed in the Senate. Webb and his staff are still learning.

The senator-elect's ignorance of Portsmouth's Craney Island made headlines early in the campaign. But a pre-Election Day press release underscores that someone on the staff needs a geography lesson. The page referred to "North Hampton" County, "Accomack County (middle peninsula)" and "Essex County (outer peninsula)."

Make that Northampton County, Accomack County on the Eastern Shore, and Essex County on the Middle Peninsula.

Outer peninsula? Do we even have one?

Oh, well, inner, outer, upper, lower, they're all surrounded by water on three sides.

For more than three decades, Webb's newly won seat belonged to Harry Byrd, who was to Virginia politics what Wal-Mart is to retail merchandising. He ran the show, squelching competition and dictating rules of engagement that ensured his continued success.

Byrd arrived in 1933 in Washington. He quickly came to symbolize limited, pay-as-you-go government and, in later years, the flawed, failed cause of resistance to school integration. Son Harry carried on a more benign, less controlling version of his papa's politics from 1965 to 1982.

Then, the troubles began. Trible, an aggressive young congressman from the Peninsula, who had helped prod Byrd Jr. into retirement, captured the seat — aided by venomous in-fighting among Democrats. Once in office, he sometimes seemed out of his league. Faced with the prospect of a 1988 challenge from a popular former governor, Trible (who has since become the highly successful president of Christopher Newport University) suddenly found appeal in spending more time with his young family.

He quit to run — unsuccessfully — for governor. Chuck Robb, decorated Marine, son-in-law of President Lyndon Johnson, short-listed on the Democrats' presidential watch, assumed the post. Before his first term ended, Robb, too, proved jinxed. Make that highjinksed. His escapades with a former beauty queen and a fast crowd in Virginia Beach nearly undid him in 1994 and proved fatal in 2000.

That's the year Allen, another popular former governor, seized the slot. Soon, he also was igniting presidential buzz. Which brings us to 2006 and Allen's very public unraveling. George Bush, through his Iraq policies, and Allen, through personal missteps, took turns pulling out the threads.

Now, it's Webb's turn. A warrior and an intellectual, a populist and a world traveler, a man of passionate ideals and stark experiences, Webb appears to have the right stuff to remain in office for many years — or to quickly lose patience and heart for the inevitable compromises and insatiable scrutiny of political life.

Another political meteorite or the first man with staying power since the Byrds?

The journey begins. S

Margaret Edds is a columnist for the Virginian Pilot

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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